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Picky Eaters Q&A

Published in Pediatrics, For the Health of It, Healthy Eating Tips Author: Jill Amsberry,DO

Editor’s Note: Jill Amsberry, DO, was recently a guest on “Your Health” — a weekly radio program with KNSI’s Bob Hughes discussing health issues featuring providers across CentraCare. 

Dr. Amsberry is a board-certified pediatrician who cares for children of all ages and backgrounds. You can listen to the full program here. Some of the text below has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Babies kind of come with an instruction manual — at least with formula and breastfeeding they tell you exactly what you should do. And kids, when they’re little usually get a balanced diet, right?

Dr. Amsberry: That’s right. Infants are pretty simple to feed in general — once they get the hang of it — from formula or breast milk. They’re growing rapidly, so they’re eating a lot. Even in nine to 12 months, when they start to take more solid foods, they’re still doing a good job in eating a wide variety of foods.

Q: How do I know that my child is getting enough food?

Dr. Amsberry: What happens is that after that first year of life, so right around 12- to 18-month range, they don’t grow as quickly. And that’s when they’re transitioning to table food and that’s when they’re not as “excited” about the variety of foods.

Q: How do we help our kids make better choices even starting at 1 years old?

Dr. Amsberry: One of the most important things for parents to know is that it’s OK that they’re picky. The most important thing, and what I tell parents, is that kids get a wide variety of foods throughout the week — a rainbow of foods throughout the week. Your kid might be really into breakfast for a little while and then really not eat much for lunch or dinner. Or your kid may be into just one food for three to four days. That’s all they’ll eat. You know, only raspberries, only blueberries. And that’s normal behavior. The important thing is that the parent doesn’t make that into a battle. Because once mealtime becomes a battle, you’ve lost.

Q: How do you communicate that to your children to just try something? To try new foods or foods they maybe haven’t liked before.

Dr. Amsberry: We recommend that families have family mealtime and that the kids are fed the same thing that the parents are eating. So therefore, it’s also important that parents are eating healthy foods themselves. Putting their plate out with a wide variety of foods, knowing that they’re not going to eat everything. In fact, they may only eat one thing, but that visual exposure is really important. Eventually the kids might touch that blueberry or whatever it is they don’t want, or they might lick it or smell it. And all of those things are great for their exposure.

We know that kids need to be exposed to a food sometimes 10 to 20 times before they’ll ever take a taste. We do recommend though that on that plate there’s something that they really like and something that’s new. The new thing we call the “Adventure Bite” or a “No Thank You Bite.” So taking a bite is enough. That’s OK. And you don't need to serve it at every meal. Bringing it back a week or two later is enough.

Trying foods in different ways can be very important or adding different flavors to it. Putting some cheese with your broccoli, where the kids may like cheese and they like that kind of the sweetness or the saltiness of the cheese, then you add the broccoli with it.

Q: Is it OK to add salt to your child’s food?

Dr. Amsberry: We usually don’t recommend it because we want the kids to be able to taste the food as it is, without all of the additives on top of it. Other spices are OK to add into the food.

Q: Do kids still like simple foods?

Dr. Amsberry: Yeah, they do. Except that we’ve done a good job at marketing to our kids so they think that they should like the things that come in a box. I always tell families try to eat things that are real food. Food is something that grows from the ground or in trees. Not something that comes out of a box. If it’s something that your grandmother wouldn’t know is food, then don’t eat it. You should know what is on that ingredient list. If there’s something on there that you don’t even know what it is, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Q: We no longer have the food pyramid. It is now MyPlate. What are the recommended daily amounts for kids?

Dr. Amsberry: It really varies based on age. If you go to healthychildren.org, they’ll give you a lot of recommendations for the different, basic groups. What kids should be eating meat, fish, poultry or eggs, milk, cheese and other dairy, fruit and veggies, cereals, potatoes, rice, etc. And calorie intake, obviously, varies according to age as well.

Q: How important is it to set a good example when it comes to eating?

Dr. Amsberry: Having a plan together as a meal and explaining to them “This is why we eat this.” Having the kids understand why we eat it. Other things that are important are getting the kids involved in grocery shopping and the making of the food. Having our little chefs in our kitchen.

Q: How can parents make a trip to the grocery store a teaching moment?

Dr. Amsberry: I like to offer my kids the opportunity to choose a different fruit or vegetable that they may have not tried before. They’re much more likely to try it if it’s their choice. The other thing that we recommend is staying on the outside, so the perimeter of the grocery store. That’s usually where the healthier options are going to be.

Q: When it comes to the healthy diet parents have to set the example, but on occasion is it OK to jump off that wagon?

Dr. Amsberry: Absolutely. I think it's important for kids to know that nothing is excluded. That everything is OK in moderation, but that the majority of the time, this is the kind of food that we recommend eating.

Q: What are some of the things that you see in today’s world that parents really should pay attention to, that the kids are going to say, “Hey, I want this!”

Dr. Amsberry: We do know that screen time leads to obesity, not just because of inactivity, but because of the marketing that happens in the commercials in between. And that may be on TV, but remember that even on digital devices, they’re seeing commercials or ads for different foods or products. The healthiest foods, they don’t need marketing. You don’t see us throwing apples on the commercials or bananas.

Q: What does the pediatrician feed her children?

Dr. Amsberry: I deal with the very same problems that every other parent deals with. I have very, very picky eaters in my home so we’ve had to work really hard on some of these topics. Offering different things at mealtime.

Another thing that we do as a family is called bridging. For example, if a child really likes French fries, then let’s offer them sweet potato fries. Then we bridged from sweet potato fries to sweet potatoes. You can bridge lots of different foods if you find that a child really likes one thing or another. Another example is the child only likes white bread. Let’s try wheat bread that looks the same. Now let’s try more whole grain bread. Now we can get into something like Ezekiel bread or some of the other full-grain products. Bridging really helps a lot with picky eaters. My kids are picky. Their favorite foods are some of the same favorite foods that other kids like; we just have to eat them in moderation.

Q: What about beverages? Are energy drinks and protein shakes safe for teenagers?

Dr. Amsberry: So that’s a common concern that I have where these guys come in and they feel like they need to ingest these protein shake. Number one: Kids in American culture get more protein than they probably actually need. In general, the American diet has a lot of protein in it, so they’re probably fine from a protein standpoint. We also know that more protein doesn’t mean more muscle. More strength exercises and more workouts help with muscle build, as long as you’re getting normal protein amounts, which most kids are. Kids that are ingesting a lot of protein shakes actually can harm their body, doing long term damage to their kidneys.

As for sports drinks, some do have some energy components to them. We have not found that this is beneficial at all for kids. In fact, most of those products contain a lot of sugar and many of the products have caffeine and other additives that are not good for kids. They’re not good for brain development, they’re not good for physical development and they're not good for sleep. Water is the gold standard for drinks for kids.

In the St. Cloud area, you can listen to “Your Health” weekly on AM 1450 and FM 99.3, Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. Or you can listen live at knsiradio.com.